"Robespierre is an immortal figure not because he reigned supreme over the Revolution for a few months, but because he was the mouthpiece of its purest and most tragic discourse."
— François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution
"Our revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction and I am convinced that chance and intrigue have produced more heroes than genius and virtue."
— Maximilien Robespierre
Maximilien Robespierre was a major figure of The French Revolution. A lawyer from the town of Arras, he was an advocate of human rights as defined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he admired deeply. As a "lawyer for the common people", he gained respect and prominence among the locals, who eventually elected him to represent them in the Estates-General, France's pre-revolutionary representative body. During this period, he distinguished himself by taking pro-bono cases. Shortly after the Estates-General convened in 1789, the Revolution began with the Tennis Court Oath, in which the representatives of the common people decided to push for a constitution and governmental reform for France. Robespierre was influential in the formation of the intended new government and became a prominent member of the radical Jacobin Club (political "clubs" were in some ways parallel to political parties in modern democratic states). Specifically the faction called "The Mountain", called so because they were seated high up in the seats of the Legislative Assembly. He was particularly famous for his speeches which were often printed in newspapers and pamphlets and became Memetic Mutation during the Revolution.
During the short lived constitutional monarchy, many revolutionaries including the moderate Girondins advocated going to war in order to spread the ideas of the French Revolution. Robespierre took a hardline stance against the war, warning that "No one loves armed missionaries." However, despite his protests France declared war a few months later on Austria and Prussia. Robespierre became noted during this time for his integrity, his rousing speeches and as such he became highly popular among the French working classes. He also championed causes such as clamping down on anti-Semitism, increased rights for Protestants, abolition of slavery.
The mismanagement of the war by the Girondins and the subsequent chicanery on the part of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette created a chaotic situation, culminating in the mass killings of the September Massacres where instigators called for the deaths of criminals, political prisoners and other saboteurs. Robespierre and the Jacobins subsequently manage to take a majority in the National Convention and ousted the Girondins, after which they found themselves charged with the program of simultaneously advancing the principles of the Revolution and aiding the French war effort, fixing the messes left behind by the Girondins and clamping down on counter-revolutionaries and internal threats.
To do this, the legislative assembly suspended its newly written constitution and formed a de facto emergency government, the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre was chosen to join the committee, and he famously justified its policy of "Terror" as stemming from a wartime necessity:
"If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country ... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny."
It was this Committee that instituted the Law of Suspects, which provided the legal justification for the Terror, as an emergency measure to bring the country under control. Robespierre was never actually the dictator or in any way the sole leader of France. He was the intellectual and moral backbone for the Committee while it ran the country; however, his influence within the Committee was subject to the machinations of other members and tended to ebb and flow. A fact which made him extremely paranoid and started feeding his already considerable sense of self-righteousness.
While Robespierre is usually portrayed (and not without reason) as the personification of the worst excesses of the Revolution, he actually fought as ferociously against radicals as he did royalists. While no devout Christian himself, he eventually came to despise the atheistic bent of many in the French government and had quite a few of them guillotined. He later presided over a Festival of the Supreme Being, which celebrated a kind of middle path between old-style Catholicism and atheism; his performance there led many of his enemies to allege that he considered himself a God. Robespierre came into conflict with many proto-socialists, who wanted the new France to abolish private property and allow franchise exclusively to the sans-culottes. In short, he considered himself a man walking a narrow, winding path through a dangerous forest, with enemies on both left and right plotting the destruction of France. Seeing foreign plots to snuff out the Revolution everywhere, he violently lashed out at those enemies using the power of the Committee. Eventually, as his former colleague-turned-enemy Danton (who he had guillotined) predicted, the machinery of death he set in motion consumed him, and he was himself guillotined in July (Thermidor) of 1794.
Robespierre's own political position, while radical left, favored the emerging middle class of artisans and small businessmen (who he subsidized during the Terror), geared towards wealth redistribution and what we would call, today, the welfare state. When Robespierre went against extreme leftists Hebert and radical moderates, Danton, he actually alienated his own support among the people in Paris' sections. During Thermidor, Robespierre's downfall partly resulted from the fact that none of the sections would rise for him against the Convention(which comprised of moderate left and extreme left) because they didn't see any difference between them. Years later, Gracchus Babeuf, who would later be described as "the first Communist" and a former Hebertist felt that this was a great example of Poor Communication Kills as, "To awaken Robespierre is to awaken Democracy". A lesser known fact of Robespierre is that, under his authority during the Reign of Terror, France abolished slavery. Robespierre had consistently argued against slavery throughout his political career, famously denouncing a proposal to install a defense for slavery in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This law passed by the National Convention in February 1794, with prime support from Danton (for perhaps the last time they were on the same page), was done in a time where Haiti was in rebelling against the French government and completely changed the nature of Toussaint L'Ouverture's revolution. Later, Robespierre's police force shut down the French Slaver's Lobby, the Club Massiac and arrested many of its members, most of whom were freed after his downfall (and later successfully lobbied to Napoleon to bring slavery back). For this reason, Robespierre is highly respected by the people of Haiti even today, and in other African nations. Though abolition was set back when Napoleon came to power, he re-instituted slavery in the colonies and it was only in 1848 that slavery in France's remaining colonies completed his original commitment.
Personally, Robespierre was a slight, somewhat fastidious man who maintained immaculate dress and cleanliness at all times, although said dress was perpetually worn and out of fashion. His nickname was "The Incorruptible," and it was not ironic in any way. One biography of Robespierre is entitled "Fatal Purity."
A highly controversial person, the level of sympathy allotted to him depends on the work. Compare with Richard of Gloucester, the English king similarly known for falling anywhere between a villain and a Silent Scapegoat depending on the author's perspective. He also has a number of similarities with Vladimir Lenin.
It's worth noting that many of the morality tropes listed here differ in different works/character representations.
Accidental Misnaming: At the beginning of his political career, journalists chronicling the goings-on at the National Assemby called him everything from Robespierrot to Robests-piesse, Robertz-Pierre to Rabesse-Pierre.
Affably Evil: Most people didn't consider him evil until the very end, but everyone noted that he was personally highly kind, polite and had impeccable manners.
A God Am I: During the Festival of the Supreme Being, as he came down with the festival procession, Jacques-Alexis Thuriot is quoted as saying "Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God."
Anti-Hero: Type III during the first years of the revolution, type IV after the murder of Marat and type V during his last year.
Armor-Piercing Question: He issued a famous real-life one during a speech defending himself from accusations by the Girondins. After defending himself spiritedly, he called the Girondins out for not doing enough to uphold the needs of the common people:
"I will not remind you that the sole object of contention dividing us is that you have instinctively defended all acts of new ministers, and we, of principles; that you seemed to prefer power, and we equality... Why don't you prosecute the Commune, the Legislative Assembly, the Sections of Paris, the Assemblies of the Cantons and all who imitated us? For all these things have been illegal, as illegal as the Revolution, as the fall of the Monarchy and of the Bastille, as illegal as liberty itself... Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution which has directed itself against those who freed us from chains?"
Asexuality: One popular theory. However, historians have suggested that he was in a relationship with Eleonore Duplay, a young woman who was the daughter of the Duplay family which had given Robespierre housing. The two were often seen walking in gardens during the early 1790s and upon his death, she dressed in black all her life, earning the label, "la Veuve Robespierre"(Robespierre's Widow).
Brainy Brunette: He mostly wore the highly powdered white wig for all public appearances, but underneath that he had brown hair. And he was an intellectual, fairly smart and well read. This can be seen in one of the rare depictions of him without the wig, in Jacques-Louis David's ''Serment du Jeu de Paume''◊(he's extreme right, in the golden brown outfit).
The Chessmaster: He managed to keep the Jacobin party alive and in the hands of the extreme left after the Royalists and Moderates left it to form their own party. One way he did this was in his first tenure as part of the National Assembly where the terms of office were about to expire. Robespierre asked the committee for a "self-denying ordinance" that ensured that none of the earlier candidates, including himself, would be eligible for the next election. The nature of this ordinance and the public scrutiny forced the assembly to pass it. This ensured that a lot of new blood, including Robespierre loyalists and appointments could enter the legislation next assembly.
Critics argue that Robespierre's action was highly destabilizing since it prevented experienced politicians from continuing within the engine of government. Supporters argue that Robespierre had wanted to prevent a single party of royalist-business interests from pre-dominating. In any case, it backfired on Robespierre since the Girondins gained majority and agitated for a war that he was virtually alone in opposing with many Jacobins jumping on the band wagon.
Civil Warcraft: Spent most of the Revolution engaged in it to one degree or another, and it was one of the major reasons why he was slowly pushed towards the terror.
Crusading Lawyer: He built his reputation as "L'Incorruptible" for defending the poor in pro-bono work, because of which he was fairly poor, until his election to the National Convention.
The Dandy : He is definitely the most flamboyantly dressed of all revolutionaries, he wore coats of green, blue and pink, wore a powdered white wig and was known to wear blue-green tinted spectacles at all time.
Deism: He tried to establish the Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being. That is, state deism. He did so because while he saw Christianity (especially the Church) as a threat for the Revolution, he also disapproved of atheism which was promoted by hard-liners revolutionaries (like Hébert) in the Cult of Reason.
Robespierre was initially opposed to de-Christianisation because he felt that the people of France were not ready and that religious sentiment itself, as opposed to organized religion, could be used to direct public virtue and democratic values. He famously justified this quoting Voltaire:
"If God does not exist, it is necessary to invent him."
Draco in Leather Pants: He seems to be fairly popular in France. Or at least much more balanced in view and less disliked than in England and America, where the media portrayal is overwhelmingly negative.
Even in France, Robespierre remains highly controversial. He is the only major Revolutionary without a street name in Paris and any attempts to give him honour are often met with strong reactions from conservatives, left-wingers and other moderates who regard him as anathema. Even in his hometown in Arras, residents are known to feel ashamed of their most famous son. However, even among his local critics, Robespierre gets a fairer shake than in America and England where he's put in the same breadth as Stalin or Pol Pot, whereas they regard him as a self-righteous fanatic or a tragic instance of Jumping Off the Slippery Slope.
The Soviet Union and other communists regarded him as a hero for most of the 20th Century, with a sordid tendency to idealize the Reign of Terror. To them, anyone who thinks he was tyrannical and/or represented the rising liberal bourgeoisie is labelled... a right-wing bourgeois reactionary, a collaborator of capital, etc. Left-wing critics such as Trotskyite Daniel Guerin point out that Robespierre actually neutralized the sans-culottes by depriving them a voice during the Revolution and he was not as popular a leader as Danton and Hebert. Robespierre to them symbolizes the beginning of authoritarian Marxism (Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc) that creates a forced unity in the name of "the people".
Robespierre is more favorably looked at in Haiti and Africa (for his abolitionism), and even in Vietnam where the Viet-Cong(who were raised in the French colonial period) regarded Robespierre as a true revolutionary as compared to Napoleon, who they felt betrayed all its principles.
Everyone Went to School Together: Robespierre and his friend-turned-political-enemy Camille Desmoulins were schoolmates, and even classmates. Robespierre then had Camille Desmoulins' head off. Napoleon and Robes' younger brother Augustin were friends, as well.
In fact Robespierre served as best man at Desmoulin's wedding.
Also, he was the best Latin student at his school. This meant he was supposed to give a welcoming speech to the newly crowned....King Louis XVI.
The Extremist Was Right: The Marxist defense of it. Objectively, towards the end of the Reign, the economy was stabilizing, largely due to the assignat system of fixed bread prices he placed in and the wealth redistribution measures were coming in as well. The Army which he was controlling via Committee Overseers Saint-Just and his brother Augustin was becoming professional despite featuring a mass of raw recruits and rookies, largely thanks to the organization of Lazare Carnot but also on account of Robespierre's rigid demands of meritocracy. This resulted, ironically, in Napoleon's first major appointment (a fact which he was always grateful for to Robespierre, though he kept his praises private). After Thermidor, the Directory government saw rapid inflation and widespread unpopularity and the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars via military adventurism, creating the climate for Napoleon to take over.
Famous Last Words: Robespierre's jaws were shattered by a gunshot so he did not have conventional last words. But the last things he said in public was during the Thermidor Reaction, where his former allies and fellow participants in the Reign of Terror, some of whom had more blood on his hands than him, mocked the fact that he was silenced by outrage, remarked:
Man in Crowd: "It is Danton's blood that is choking you!"
Robespierre: "Danton! It is Danton then you regret? Cowards! Why did you not defend him?"
Green Eyes: Was stated to have had eyes of sea-green, he augmented the effect with green tinted glasses that he wore.
He Who Fights Monsters: He was actually against the death penalty in his early years, but during the French Revolutionary Wars he began to use the guillotine against France's enemies, including the royal family. It got worse when Jean-Paul Marat, an influential newspaper writer and politician known for advocating direct and often violent action by the general public, was murdered by a supporter of the rival Girondin Club. Marat himself noted Robespierre's initial reluctance to violence and extremism:
"Robespierre listened to me with terror. He grew pale and silent for some time. This interview confirmed me in the opinion that I always had of him, that he unites the knowledge of a wise senator with the integrity of a thoroughly good man and the zeal of a true patriot but that he is lacking as a statesman in clearness of vision and determination."
The historical record during his active career when he was highly popular and respected describes him as an elegantly dressed dandy, who was while generally austere regarded proper grooming as his sole luxury. The portraits such as the one on top from 1790 even makes him quite handsome which might have overemphasized his reputation as "The Incorruptible" but more objective portraits show that he was not exactly ugly either. The same applies for sculptures and busts which make his facial features to be quite youthful, and he was in his early 30s during the Revolution. After his death, he was constantly denounced as a "pygmy" and frequently made more unattractive in depictions in the years to come.
This controversy showed itself even more after a 2013 3D facial reconstruction that supposedly shows his features at the time of his death, which many critics denounce for being excessively demonic and completely differing from the historical record. The researchers stated they used Madame Tussaud's death mask as a basis for reconstruction but critics have noted that the death mask by Tussaud has long been regarded as a joke among professional historians since it lacks the widely reported jaw injury at the time of his execution and that the circumstances and manner in which Robespierre died make it next to impossible for Tussaud to have gotten access to Robespierre's head, since the Thermidorians immediately sought to dispose of his body and his remains and would certainly not have allowed comemoration of a man they just upgraded into a tyrant.
In his famous speech, Report on the Principles of Public Morality, he cites several examples describing his utopian belief in a Republic of Virtue:
Republican virtue can be considered as it relates to the people and as it relates to the government. It is necessary in both. When the government alone is deprived of it, there remains a resource in the virtue of the people; but when the people themselves are corrupt, liberty is already lost. Happily virtue is natural to the people, despite aristocratic prejudices to the contrary. A nation is truly corrupt when, having gradually lost its character and its liberty, it passes from democracy to aristocracy or to monarchy; this is the death of the body politic through decrepitude...Demosthenes thundered in vain against Philip [of Macedon] , Philip found more eloquent advocates than Demosthenes among the degenerate inhabitants of Athens. There was still as large a population in Athens as in the times of Miltiades and Aristides, but there were no longer any true Athenians. And what did it matter that Brutus killed a tyrant? Tyranny still lived in every heart, and Rome existed only in Brutus.
Needless to say, after Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre, the conspirators stopped the reform program of the revolution and successively brought into power, Napoleon made France an Empire and later re-installed Constitutional Monarchy. Of course, if Robespierre's fears were justified and ultimately vindicated, his methods were less than effective and in retrospect self-destructive.
Irony: Despite the vast number of people he had beheaded, he couldn't stand the sight of blood. His entire life is one major one, since he eventually argued for and put in place the very things he argued against in the beginning of the Revolution, believing it as part of a necessity to win a war that he had opposed from the very start (and was nearly alone, save for Marat, in doing so).
Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Going from 'lawyer highly respected by the common people' to 'main figure in a Reign of Terror who winds up being Hoisted By His Own Petard' would be bad enough, but a little bit of irony makes it worse: in the early phases of the Revolution, Robespierre wrote a little pamphlet about how the death penalty is wrong, and should not be usednote He went very quickly from 'maybe it can be justified, in certain extreme circumstances' to 'it is a useful tool', thus Jumping Off The Slippery Slope. More generally, his actions throughout his revolutionary career were directed at creating a just society and preserving a nation in crisis. He jumped off the slope (according to some) by using terror to achieve this.
Indeed, Robespierre did not start out as an extremist. He was initially considered a moderate and supported the Constitutional Monarchy and was even friendly with the Girondins. His idealism, self-righteousness and genuinely sincere belief in the Revolution's opportunity to give people a better future, forced him to take increasingly extreme positions at the constant betrayal and defections by the King and increasing corruption around him. By the time when he decided to moderate the Revolution, he ended up alienating some of his support base on the left and in Napoleon's words, ended up dying, "not worth a sou".
Mis-blamed: He actually vehemently opposed a lot of the actions that were attributed to him (like the drownings in Nantes) and was by no means the main instigator of The Terror originally. He wasn't even the one who signed the most execution orders among the Committee. In his final speeches in the Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he started criticizing the excesses of the Terror, and implicitly warned against Fouche and Tallien who were much worse than him. Both of them betrayed Robespierre and the Terror and started a posthumous smear campaign against him.
Off with His Head!: The Terror regime he served sent many, many people to the guillotine. And it was his ultimate fate.
Promotion to Parent: After the death of his mother and his father running away, Robespierre, the eldest of a family of five became this to them. He was especially close to his brother Augustin, who got executed alongside him, and his sister Charlotte who later wrote memoirs of growing up Robespierre...
Scary Shiny Glasses: Because of poor eyesight he had to wear green tinted glasses, a fact that most depictions ignore. This eventually led him to have an aura of fear with one colleague, Merlin de Thionville, who was part of the Thermidorian Reactionary faction stating, "If you had seen those green eyes of his".'
The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: A lot of the reason why Robespierre is still contentious and respected even by liberals is that a lot of the positions he was advocating, and regarded as extreme then, such as rights for Jews, Men of Colour, Welfare program, wealth redistribution and abolition of slavery eventually came to be taken for granted by most liberal democracies, though on a more gradual level.
Toxic Friend Influence: The jury is still out if he was this to Saint-Just or Saint-Just was this to him. The two of them were pretty much the only best friends either had at the end.
Napoleon: " Robespierre was by no means the worst character who figured in the Revolution. He was a fanatic, a monster, but he was incorruptible, and incapable of robbing, or causing the deaths of others, either from personal enmity, or a desire of enriching himself. He was an enthusiast; but one who really believed that he was acting right, and died not worth a sou."